Monthly Archive: February 2017

Black van

A black van arrives most mornings and disgorges a bunch of good-looking young people, distinguished by beards and/or dreadlocks, who then work the land over the course of an often long day. Their current tasks are to fill the tree holes and layer the swales with compost and mulch (straw) and to continue to distribute the stones in the land to best advantage for the swales and for the plants to come. Hillocks of compost sacks and miniature hay ricks appeared at the bottom of the track up the hill, dropped off by van, and were then delivered by tractor to the top and sides of the land where they could be more easily dragged or rolled to where they were needed.

I was in England for a while this past week and in that time an enormous amount of rain fell here. From the pictures Husband sent me and the descriptions he gave, it sounded more torrential than any I’d ever experienced. Certainly the river is lovely now: enough current to smooth over the worst of the council digging – which went on for ages but seems at last to have stopped – and with a crystal clarity. The rain proved a little too much for the swales, however. There were a few breaches, one in particular that carved a clear path through, leaving a U-shaped gap in the earth mound. This is good, however. It revealed exactly where the water on its desired route down the land met a weak point in the swale, and enabled us to fix it before the planting started. It was a fierce downpour and so a worthwhile test. Additionally, the swales, newly made, are at their most fragile. When plants have established themselves on them with root systems burrowing down, they’ll be stronger. Even in their newly made state, they channelled and furrowed the rainwater to much better effect than has ever happened before. So, it was all done just in time.

It was several days after I returned home before I could even go and see what had happened on the hill, having been laid low by an English cold. When I finally emerged, it was to a whole new space, one which invites wandering and exploration and offers many opportunities for planting. Today, I got to be an occupant of the big black van, as we drove the long journey across the Algarve to Monchique to our chosen viveiro to purchase the trees and shrubs, which include these: Portuguese oak, olive, almond, red pepper tree (not sure if that is its name in English), loquat, fig, medronho, quince, persimmon, plum, apricot, mango, banana, avocado, grapefruit, lemon, lime, blackberry, mulberry, goji, strawberry, walnut, vine . . .

Our plant haul, arranged in the back of the black van. Being away and then sick this week meant that this is the only photograph I took, but it is one to lift the heart

Never give up

Moody weather over the Meditation Hill

Linaria amethystea, Amethyst Toadflax, a tiny jewel amid the abundant greenery


The landform engineering is complete. The steepest part of the hill is wreathed in swales. They are large and deep, and within each land-hugging curve is a flatter terrace designed to make the land easier to walk on and – eventually – harvest from. The completion of the digging was met with downpours. Pleasingly, the swales, although they lack the mulching and the plant roots that will make them truly like sponges, channelled and held on to plenty of water.

Before the rain came we sowed the swales with seed – what musical words! – of broad bean and oat to generate green manure for spring-time and roots to train the water down into the earth. I joined in, informing the others as I scattered the seed with a sweep of the arm that this was the origin of the English word ‘broadcast’. This fascinating announcement fell on stony ground. Of much more interest to them – I discovered only when I’d finished – was my technique of scattering. It took me four times as long as anyone else and on completion I was met with indulgent looks. I demand patience from my co-workers, it seems. My desired transition from desk-worker to smallholder is going slowly. I’m still more Margot than Barbara.

It was morning and the sun rising over the opposite hill – the Meditation Hill – had lit up most of the dew drops like diamonds, but some drops, hanging heavily from grass stalks by a broken rock, looked more like copper, gold, amethyst. The broken rock had to be shale, I realised; this shiny film is what the fossil-fuel dinosaurs are interested in. It’s a great relief that the contracts giving one deluded businessman the rights to frack almost half of the landmass of the Algarve were cancelled. All the offshore rights remain in place, however, and one activist with her nose close to the paperwork – Laurinda Seabra – discovered that in January the government had secretly signed the licence for Galp-ENI to start drilling 3,000 metres below the seabed off the Aljezur coast. Not only that, in the small print the oil consortium is exempt both from paying licence fees and a security deposit and from providing proof that they have civil responsibility insurance in place – which can surely only mean that they have no such insurance in place. The government has taken no notice whatsoever of our repeated protests and petitions. Gestures towards public consultation were a weird Trumpian handshake while behind the scenes it was business as usual. So we’ll have to keep protesting. The next demonstration takes place in Lisbon outside the Assembleia da República on 23 February, when a long overdue parliamentary hearing is intended finally to take place to discuss the issues raised during the public consultation process: just to complete the window-dressing on their part, I guess.

Soon we will plant trees on the land. Mind you, with all the log fires we’ve been making to drive out the damp and the chill of recent wet days, we must be burning more trees than we could ever replace. Hypocrisy – never far away.

The sparrows refuse to lose interest in our veranda and its mud nest. They managed somehow to dislodge the two corks nailed together with metal U-pins. This contraption must match the body weight of the sparrows, so they really do deserve applause. But they are not getting in on my watch. I’ve replaced the corks. Build your own nest, feathered friends. You have so much space to choose from.

The sparrows don’t give up. The oilmen don’t give up. And we don’t give up. Well, apart from last week when I was scheduled to write a blog as ever, but ran out of juice and didn’t do it. It is a purely self-imposed deadline, an exercise in self-discipline and commitment as much as in communication, but it’s important to me and I didn’t like failing to meet it. I’m glad to be back this week.

This sparrow youngster was fascinated by the phones near the Signal Tree, aka the central post of the veranda with its backdrop of bougainvillea, often strung about with devices as it is one of the best places to have a chance of picking up an incoming call. First it looked at itself in the screen . . .

. . . then, having discovered how cute it was, it played all coy in front of Husband, hiding its face in its wing

Permaculture start

An almond tree in the morning fog, the sun trying to break through. The view is from our veranda and is of the land going down to the river, which isn’t ours. The land we are working on is behind us but I’m not able to show it, for reasons explained below . . .


Our battle with the sparrows has escalated. The natural world is boss, but we’re not above a bit of engineering where we can. The sparrows are not going to squat the swallow nest, whatever they think. Their latest attempt was to push our cork barricade down into the nest since they couldn’t remove it – rather like we might do with a wine bottle we don’t have a corkscrew for but are desperate to get into. I positioned a stepladder under the nest, then reached in to retrieve the corks. The half of the tunnel entrance that had not been pecked away by the sparrows came away in my hands, so after filling the nest interior with a scrunched-up plastic bag I blocked the widened entrance with the broken-off bit of nest.

They breached the mud barricade in no time. It was in pieces on the veranda floor the next time I looked. The plastic bag was working, however. They couldn’t get round that. This time I returned the two nailed-together corks to the entrance and added a third for good measure. So far so good. I believe I get malevolent looks from the sparrows every time I go out but I’m up to that.

Land engineering is our other preoccupation. Our permaculture project has got under way: we are beginning to create swales on the hillside. ‘Swale’ is a little-used word, possibly east Anglian dialect but don’t quote me on that, meaning a damp or shady hollow in the landscape. Little used, that is, until taken up by the world of permaculture, where the swale is a favoured piece of landform technology. I think of a swale as like a swag, the soft, drooping curve of a piece of gathered fabric. We are taking the wrinkled, uneven material of the hillside and bunching it into smooth ridges and furrows that curve along its contours. The ridges and furrows will slow down and capture water run-off. The furrows will also be where organic material can gather and topsoil can build up, with a bit of help from compost and mulch. You can build swales painstakingly using a pick and a shovel if you have masses of time and good muscles but we are getting a machine in to dig them out.

The first step was to work out the contours using a large A frame from which a rock hung on a string like a plumb line. I got to spend a precious morning away from my desk marking out the swales as assistant to our permaculture advisor, which was heavenly, especially on the warm day we were blessed with. I moved across the face of the hill, swinging the A frame from point to point like a large pair of compasses, waiting for the rock plumb line to determine the exact position of the frame’s forward foot so that my companion could hammer in an iron stake there, fluttering with a red and white strip for visibility. We marked out four swales on our neglected hillside in this way.

The next day the digger arrived to start the work of carving out the furrows and building up the ridges following the marked-out routes. Rain stopped play, however. The red earth turned claggy and unworkable. We must wait until the sun shines again before continuing.

I took pictures to show you but the internet is not cooperating with me today. It might be the rain that’s slowed it down to an impossible degree. I hope to have progress to report on next week – but we are in the hands of the weather gods.


%d bloggers like this: